ALFRED WALLIS British, 1855 - 1942
Alfred Wallis was a British naive painter of sailing ships and landscapes.
Alfred's parents, Charles and Jane Wallis, were from Penzance in Cornwall and moved to Devonport, Devon, where Alfred and his brother Charles were born. Later, when Jane Wallis died, the family returned to Penzance.
Wallis married Susan Ward in 1876, when he was 20 and his wife was 41. He became stepfather to her five children. He continued as a deep-sea fisherman on the Newfoundland run in the early days of his marriage. After the death of his two infant children Alfred switched to local fishing and labouring in Penzance.
The family moved to St Ives, Cornwall, in 1890 where he established himself as a marine stores dealer. In 1912, his business, "Wallis, Alfred, Marine Stores Dealer" closed and Alfred kept busy with odd jobs and worked for a local antiques dealer, Mr Armour, which provided some insight into the world of objects d’art.
Following his wife's death in 1922, Wallis took up painting, as he later told Jim Ede, "for company". Wallis was self-taught, and never had an art lesson.
His paintings are an excellent example of naïve art; perspective is ignored and an object's scale is often based on its relative importance in the scene, giving many of his paintings a map-like quality. Wallis painted seascapes from memory, in large part because the world of sail he knew was being replaced by steamships. Having little money, Wallis improvised with materials, mostly painting on cardboard ripped from packing boxes and using a limited palette of paint bought from ship chandlers.
In many ways, Wallis' timing was excellent. In 1928, a few years after he had started painting, Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood came to St Ives and established an artist colony. They were delighted to find Wallis and celebrated his direct approach to image-making. Wallis was propelled into a circle of some of the most progressive artists working in Britain in the 1930s.
The influence, however, was all one way - Wallis continued to paint as he always had.
Through Nicholson and Wood, Wallis was introduced to Jim Ede who promoted his work in London. Despite this attention, Wallis sold few paintings and continued to live in poverty until he died in the Madron workhouse near Penzance.
He is buried in Barnoon cemetery, overlooking St Ives Porhmeor beach and the Tate St Ives gallery. An elaborate gravestone, depicting a tiny mariner at the foot of a huge lighthouse – a popular motif in Wallis' paintings – was made from tiles by the potter Bernard Leach and covers Wallis' tomb.
Examples of Wallis' paintings can be seen at the Tate St Ives and at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge (Jim Ede's home).
In October 2020 an exhibition Alfred Wallis Rediscovered opened at Kettle's Yard.